Some portions of the American Catholic Church are truly losing their way in this election campaign. As if the child abuse and molestations cases sweeping the country are not enough for them to grapple with, some prelates have decided to flex their religious/political muscle in expansive and intrusive ways they never have before. The New York Times reported this week that a right-wing Los Angeles Catholic filed a case calling for John Kerry’s excommunication from the Church.
I know something about being excommunicated from one’s religion. In 1983, I was an early member of New Jewish Agenda, a national group which embraced a two state solution to the Israeli-Paletinian conflict and gay rights. A rump group of 13 Orthodox rabbis met in one of their homes in rural Massachussets and solemnly declared all NJA members formally excommunicated from Judaism. At the time, we viewed these shnenanigans as a badge of honor. After all, wasn’t Baruch Spinoza, the great medieval philosopher, also excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community?
But what’s being proposed here is much more pernicious and disturbing than the obscure antics of a few non-representative Orthodox rabbis.
Now Archbishop Chaput comes along with the extraordinary statement that the separation of church and state, a foundation principle of the U.S. Constitution is an “empty slogan,” “dishonest and ultimately dangerous…” Here’s what he actually wrote in Faith and Patriotism:
I hear lectures [that] Roman Catholics must not “impose their beliefs on society” or warnings about the need for “the separation of church and state.” These are two of the emptiest slogans in current American politics, intended to discourage serious debate. No one in mainstream American politics wants a theocracy. Nor does anyone doubt the importance of morality in public life. Therefore, we should recognize these slogans for what they are: frequently dishonest and ultimately dangerous sound bites.
Here is a further shocking quotation which equates public figures like Kerry who endorse a woman’s right to choose with “abortionists” themselves:
Catholics [who] take a “pro-choice” view toward abortion contradict our identity and make us complicit in how the choice plays out. The “choice” in abortion always involves the choice to end the life of an unborn human being. For anyone who sees this fact clearly, neutrality, silence or private disapproval are not options. They are evils almost as grave as abortion itself.
To me, this comes chillingly close to the contention by right to lifers during the 1990s that doctors who performed abortions were murderers whose murder could be thereby morally justified.
Chaput continues with the specious argument that what those who favor choice somehow wish to deprive Catholics of their right to participate in the national debate over abortion. He posits a dubious bogeyman who wishes to “exile religion from civic debate.”
Given America’s history of anti-Catholic nativism, Catholics strongly support the Constitution’s approach to religious freedom. But the Constitution does not, nor was it ever intended to, prohibit people or communities of faith from playing an active role in public life. Exiling religion from civic debate separates government from morality and citizens from their consciences.
What’s odd about this statement is that no one in this country stakes a claim to such a position. So (as the Brits would say) what’s he on about?? Beats me.
Chaput continues with another extraordinary and disturbing admission:
Claiming that “we don’t want to impose our beliefs on society” is not merely politically convenient; it is morally incoherent and irresponsible.
In other words, what the good archbishop is telling us is that “yes, we do want to impose our beliefs on society because we believe that they are the only truly moral and correct ones in this debate.” OK, at least we know where we stand with this politically ambitious and aggrandizing moral charlatan.
Earlier in the column he justified Catholic legislative pressure to outlaw abortion with this statement:
Lawmaking inevitably involves some group imposing its beliefs on the rest of us. That’s the nature of the democratic process. If we say that we “ought” to do something, we are making a moral judgment. When our legislators turn that judgment into law, somebody’s ought becomes a “must” for the whole of society. This is not inherently dangerous; it’s how pluralism works.
So if the Catholic Church succeeds in outlawing abortion with laws that violate my interpretation of my own religion, Judaism, then my good man Chaput says: “tough luck buddy, that’s the price of democracy.”
All I have to say to that is: Sir, that’s not my definition of democracy and I will fight with ‘all my heart, all my soul, and all my might’ to prevent your views from becoming the law of the land. All Archbishop Chaput has done here in this article is lay out the Church’s aggressive, supremely intolerant agenda for the next four years in ways that will deeply offend and arouse those who are not aware of their plans.
The archbishop also neglects to say in this column that he and other extreme right-wing Catholics have been stridently lobbying their parishoners to vote against John Kerry. In some cases, they tell them that such a vote would be a mortal sin that must be confessed to a priest. To me, that’s downright extraordinary and oppressive. It makes me ever so happy I was born a Jew. In our religion, no one including a rabbi has a right to tell me how to be a Jew or that such a thing is a sin. We Jews (except Orthodox Jews) are granted the right to define our religious beliefs and practices for ourselves without the interference of our spiritual leaders.
Finally, what Chaput omits from his analysis is his effort to essentially “criminalize” (at least in the eyes of the Church) Catholic politicians who neglect to toe the “party” line in this debate. Though I have not specifically heard him say this, Chaput undoubtedly supports the effort to excommunicate Kerry. This is an odious and extremely intemperate position which should and must be opposed by Catholic laypeople and spiritual leaders of good conscience. Otherwise, hatred and mistrust of the Church will increase exponentially among non-Catholics. Is that truly what Chaput wants? I sincerely hope not (but I’d bet that when it comes down to it, he really doesn’t much care what non-Catholics think of the Church).
I’ve also written a post about Archbishop John Myers of Newark, who’s denied communion to Democratic politicians like the governor, who are pro-choice.
For those who’d like to read a far different interpretation of Roman Catholicism, I invite you to visit Pax Christi USA, which just released Life Does Not End at Birth: Catholics Called to Vote for the Common Good.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.